On Saturday afternoon hundreds of people rallied outside the police headquarters in downtown Toronto as the Black Lives Matter protests in Canada’s biggest city entered their seventh day.
The “Blackout Against Police Brutality” demonstration was organized by members of the Black Lives Matter movement’s Toronto chapter (#BLMTO) as a day of action against police violence and anti-Black racism within the Toronto Police Service.
Demonstrators, including labour unions, students, and Indigenous groups, hoisted signs that read “Stop Racist Police Violence,” “Stop Shooting My Brothers,” and “A Hammer Is Not A Gun. R.I.P. Andrew Loku,” while chanting “No justice, no peace!” and “Black Lives Matter!”
As more people joined the peaceful protest, police were forced to shut down College Street between Bay and Yonge Streets. As night fell, DJs and rap artists entertained a lively and energetic crowd, many of whom danced and sang along.
The event coincided with a so far week-long tent city demonstration (#BLMTOtentcity) occupying space outside Toronto’s police headquarters, where members of the city’s black community and allies hunkered down last Monday following an announcement days earlier that the police officer who shot and killed 45-year-old Andrew Loku in a Toronto apartment building last July would be neither charged, nor named.
Loku was a father of five, a refugee and former child soldier from South Sudan, and was residing at an affordable housing complex leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association to help people living with mental illness. It was there he was confronted by two police officers and gunned down while allegedly walking toward them with a hammer. The only civilian witness to the shooting has disputed the sequence of events as reported by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the body tasked with investigating the incident.
Reports say Loku was working hard to save up enough money to bring his wife and children to Canada.
#BLMTO protestors have vowed to stay put indefinitely, as they await response to their demands from the city, province and police force. They are calling for, among other things, justice for Loku and an end to police violence and anti-Black racism.
Before Saturday’s rally began #BLMTO co-founder Rodney Diverlus spoke with The Independent.
He said it’s “becoming clear that Toronto’s black community and our allies are fed up with the lack of action from our mayor, the lack of action from our province, and the ways that law enforcement [uses] violence, whether that’s through carding, whether it’s through policies, or whether it’s through actually taking our lives.
“It’s done with impunity and no accountability whatsoever.”
The birth of #BLMTO
The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter formed in November 2014 as a show of solidarity with the Black community in Ferguson, Mo., where thousands took to the streets to protest the police killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
The killing of Loku, however, “split the crack and let out a bunch of other stories of police violence” against members of Toronto’s Black community, Diverlus said.
“The issues of police brutality, of state-sanctioned violence, of anti-Black racism, isn’t only an American issue. It’s in Canadian society as well.”
The tent city currently set up outside police headquarters isn’t the first #BLMTO action since Loku’s death. Last July, just more than a week after the shooting, protestors interrupted a Toronto Police Services board meeting to demand justice for Loku and a public apology from the mayor and police chief.
Days later, on July 21, the SIU announced there would be no charges laid against the Peel Regional Police officer who shot and killed another black man, Jermaine Carby, during a traffic stop in Brampton in Sept. 2014.
Responding to the announcement, #BLMTO protestors shut down a major road in Toronto for two hours as part of a day of action.
#BLMTO is calling for an overhaul of the SIU, whose mandate “is to maintain confidence in Ontario’s police services by assuring the public that police actions resulting in serious injury, death, or allegations of sexual assault are subjected to rigorous, independent investigations,” according to the watchdog’s website.
Diverlus said after the Loku and Carby investigations, the SIU “has little trust or rapport with the community, often takes the side of the police, and is very bureaucratic in the way that they do things.”
The expressions of Black Lives Matter and the actions they’re taking [are] reflections of voices that have been long silenced, invisiblized and delegitimized for too long. And eventually that’s going to boil over. — Anthony Morgan, lawyer
Loku’s family and the community “had to wait over eight months to hear whether or not the police will be indicted with and charged with Andrew Loku’s murder — and last Friday we got the news as a community, through a press release, that the SIU would not be charging the police for the murder of Andrew Loku. And that’s what has sparked where we are at right now.”
The group is also calling for the elimination of carding, the controversial practice where police stop and I.D. people — mostly members of the Black community. According to a 2012 investigative report by the Toronto Star, far more black and brown men were carded than whites between 2008-2011.
Last week Ontario’s provincial government announced it was prohibiting carding and street checks, but critics, including #BLMTO and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, were quick to condemn the new regulations, arguing they do little to stop racial profiling of people of colour or Indigenous people.
“All of our demands are strategic in that they’re based on what we think will help [bring about] accountability for violence,” said Diverlus. “In the U.S. one of the tactics they used is when a murder happened or violence impacted someone from a Black community, the name of the officer allowed the community to actually know who committed it, but also [for them] to look into the background of the police officer.
“And most of the time in the States we’ll find that the police who killed a black person has a history of violence, has notes on their file of racism and of being anti-black, and then we’re able to draw the parallels and we’re able to draw the fact that police boards and police services often justify those behaviours and often enable the anti-blackness that happens within their officers.”
Last year Anthony Morgan, a policy and research lawyer with the African Canadian Legal Clinic in Toronto, told the Toronto Star “the expressions of Black Lives Matter and the actions they’re taking [are] reflections of voices that have been long silenced, invisiblized and delegitimized for too long. And eventually that’s going to boil over.”
Protests met with violence and intimidation
Last Monday Toronto police moved to clear the tents outside police headquarters. Demonstrators say officers were violent as they poured a black tar-like substance over their belongings, including firewood used to help people stay warm.
Doriesha States, a young Black Indigenous woman who grew up in Nova Scotia but now lives in Toronto, told The Independent she was pushed by a police officer into a woodpile and sustained knee and back injuries.
States said she had been attending the demonstrations during the evenings, but now only goes during the daytime “because it’s painful to stay there [too long] and stand up.”
She is contemplating pressing charges against the police.
“It was completely unnecessary, the force they used. And the fact that there was children there. We were even saying there was children there, but they did not stop — they came at us with force. Thank goodness none of the children were hurt, but the thing is they were scared, and that is going to affect them — they are going to carry that with them because it’s hard not to,” she said, explaining those children may now grow up with the perception that police are hostile toward members of the Black community.
Since the police’s initial attempt to clear the tents, which was unsuccessful, they’ve since resorted to other tactics to deter protestors.
— Mik Turje (@dandyshots) March 22, 2016
“We acknowledged as a community that [Monday’s police raid] was a tactic to get the tent city to break down and to destabilize the movement, and since that happened it only served to galvanize the community, and we’ve been able to set everything back up and have been able to withstand police intimidation throughout the week,” Diverlus said.
“Every single day there’s something new, whether it’s shutting off the power, whether it’s removing the only public garbage cans that are in the area…whether it’s coming in and removing materials and signs and constantly intimidating, constantly having their presence known, and really making it very clear that we as protestors aren’t welcome here — while simultaneously going in the media and talking about support for peaceful protests, talking about support for the resisters, and the chief of police saying they welcome criticism and welcome residents challenging them.
“So there’s a disconnect between what’s being said by the police and their spokespeople in the media, and what actually happens on the ground. And the protestors have actually been really strong and staying put, and really figuring out ways of being flexible when the police are intimidating and attacking us. Because we know that the police already have power, and we already know that the police often wield that power in excess. So for us as black communities it’s something that we’re already used to. If the police think that we’re going to go away just by creating a really uncomfortable situation for us, I think that [instead] they’re going to see black people’s resilience and strength.”
Growing support from civil society
Throughout the week of protests #BLMTO has garnered significant support from the public.
On Friday the Council of Canadians issued a statement of solidarity, joining Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor, and the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, CUPE, and the Canadian Federation of Students, “who are all calling for an end to racism and greater police accountability,” the statement read.
Alexandra Fox, a native of St. John’s who is studying at Ryerson University in Toronto, has been attending some of the demonstrations and said the police response has been discriminatory against the Black community, arguing authorities seldom intervene to put out fires on the grounds of protecting public safety when predominantly white union protests during cold months often involve having a fire for striking workers to keep warm.
“Obviously it’s kind of a tactic to try to get them to leave,” she said.
Fox has been following the movement’s social media feeds, where organizers are posting lists of goods and services needed in the tent city.
“Maybe once or twice a day they’ve been sending out a list of what they need, and people have been responding and bringing it,” Fox explained. “So we went to Mountain Equipment Co-op and bought emergency heat blankets, hand warmers, and we brought tarp, scissors, rope, throat lozenges, socks, mitts, stuff like that.
“They’re also asking people to come down and help by providing mental health services, or first aid services, or for people of colour photographers and artists to come down and perform or take pictures and capture what’s happening.”
Combating violence and racism with love and acceptance
Fox said when she dropped off supplies she quickly noted a “really beautiful energy there, of support,” she said.
“There’s been music, there’s been dancing, there’s been people speaking over megaphones about the injustices being faced and how we need to work together and support each other.”
Regan Burden, a Memorial University student from Port Hope Simpson, Labrador, was attending the Racialised and Indigenous Student Experience Summit in Scarborough when the latest phase of #BLMTO demonstrations began last Sunday in Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall.
Organizers and students from Toronto led conference attendees downtown to the protest, Burden recalled in a recent letter to the editor.
“The protest opened with Indigenous drummers and singers welcoming us onto their traditional land; it was a true sign of solidarity against systemic racism,” she wrote.
Fox said demonstrators were announcing that “if anybody comes across any homeless people in Toronto, tell them to go there because they have so much food and they want to share it.
“It’s a very welcoming space,” she said. “They’re very welcoming to allies [and] it’s very important to them that people who are telling the stories are Black people, people who have been facing violence directly — and they’re making sure to centre those voices, especially Black women.”
States said the “whole movement is about love,” for her. “Love for our lives, first of all. And being able to have this community come out and show their love.”
Shifting the narrative
Diverlus said too often when Black people are killed by police the narrative in mainstream media tends to justify the actions of authorities.
“So, for us, we want to shift the narrative from talking about the victims to talking about the perpetrators,” he said. “So often victims of violence are discredited in the media…to suggest that the victims might have deserved what they got — that the victims had a history of violence, et cetera.
“But [in the case of Andrew Loku] we have no understanding, no idea of who was behind the trigger. We have no knowledge of their history, no knowledge of if they’ve been disciplined for this, we have no knowledge if them killing a black person was enabled by the police force, or if there were indicators that existed before the incident that could have helped prevent this.”
If the police think that we’re going to go away just by creating a really uncomfortable situation for us, I think that [instead] they’re going to see black people’s resilience and strength. — Rodney Diverlus
Knowing the names of the police officers “is both helpful in terms of passing policy but also in knowing how to hold people accountable, and how to hold black folks’ killers [to account],” Diverlus added.
Diverlus and States both they want people across Canada who are seeing or hearing reports of the Black Lives Matter protests to know the problem of anti-Black racism and policy brutality against members of the Black community are not isolated to Toronto, or big cities.
States grew up in rural Nova Scotia and recalls various forms of police discrimination against Black and Indigenous people.
“When the police were called it would take forever for them to come, because they knew who we were and it would take forever for them to come and be of any use,” she said.
“Just as we in Toronto have remembered that the issues of state-sanctioned violence and police brutality are not only secluded to the States, and that they happen here, I want folks in other communities to know that anti-blackness is global, and anti-black violence exists in all corners of this country,” said Diverlus.
“So I always encourage other communities to plug into the movement and to find the ways that anti-black violence and police brutality affects their communities as well.”
At the time of publication the Black Lives Matter Toronto tent city (#BLMTOtentcity) continues outside the Toronto Police Services headquarters.